By Tèmítáyò Fábùnmi
I think I’ll be losing friends on Facebook this evening. On top Biafra.
On so many evenings when I was much younger, the adult conversations at home were about “The War”. I don’t recall hearing Biafra being mentioned or if it was, it didn’t make much sense. However, tales of “The War” pockmarked my childhood. When I finally read Chimamanda Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun, it had far more nostalgic weight than I can describe. (There is a tragic personal angle to this, that I’ll touch on in a couple of paragraphs).
You see, my dad is a Yoruba boy. My mum is a Rivers geh. Their perspectives on the war was not dissimilar to the pro- and anti-Biafra noise that pervades the Nigerian airwaves today. Right in the house. It was our domestic History Channel.
I read of the progroms and genocide against Igbos in 13 Years of Military Rule. Add to that Cyprian Ekwensi’s “Divided We Stand” (a work of fiction) and a couple of other books I don’t remember now and my antipathy for Hausas and other Northerners was established. Such is the danger of a single story.
As I grew older, I read some more. Then I discovered Igbos murdered ethnic minorities during the civil war. Not one. Not two. Droves. My mother’s uncle was one – buried alive (a story I grew up hearing almost everyday but didn’t know what to make of it). My grandmother (who died when I was too young to know her) was a Braide, from Bakana. Ignore me for a minute and read up on what the Biafran Army did in Bakana. Then I went from hating the Nigerian Army to hating both the Nigerian Army (read – “Hausa”) and the Biafran Army (read – “Igbo”). In Half A Yellow Sun, Ms. Adichie also alludes to this when she wrote about an Ndoni man who was lynched for being a “sabo”.
The danger in these one-sided tales is that they breed deep mistrust. I was perhaps fortunate, by the time I left FGC, I had been sufficiently immersed in other cultures that rid me of these ethnic prejudices. There are good people and there are bad people. It is dangerous to tar an entire group based on the misdeeds of a horrible few. When I was about to write my physics paper in my final exams in school, I took ill. Patrick Nwanji and Umaru Alhassan took me to the dispensary and stayed there with me to ensure I was treated promptly and helped me back to the exam hall. There are no medals for guessing that neither of them is a Yoruba boy.
I grew older, I learnt to synthesise the disparate things I have read.
1. Forget the bullshit anyone is flying, war is a brutish thing. It never goes according to plan. Don’t take my word for it. George Bush planned a shock and awe war on Iraq. That was 2003. The shock is still on. We are waiting for the awe.
2. It is tragic that we don’t learn history in Nigeria. We also make heroes out of scoundrels. Murtala Muhammed has no business being on any national monument or currency. He was one of the well-documented war criminals of the Civil War.
The Civil War is so poorly documented that base men have now hijacked the narrative to create a lofty ideal out of it. Sorry, it was hellish. It is not worth re-experimenting.
Abominable policies like the “abandoned property” policy should be discussed and where practical, the victims compensated.
3. The 1967 Biafran national identity was far from homogeneous. The ensuing crisis revealed the scale of differences. Ethnic groups south of Elele that Igbos often refer to as Rivers Igbo today were not exempt from extra-judicial killings. Minorities further afield were more than fair game. It is dubious to sell the idea of homogeneity again today. Carve out a landlocked Biafra and you will find out that there are Igala families in Ubulu afor. How do you propose to dispose of them? Or the Igbo families from Benue State?
[By the way, this warning goes to the miscreants who fly the kite of Oduduwa Republic and draw maps that include Urhobos, Itsekiris and Isokos. You are barking mad. No apologies.]
4. We conflate a cultural identity with a national one. Our collective appreciation of civics is so weakened that we are also unable to appreciate that a cultural identity is not mutually exclusive with a national one. It is so bad that many Nigerians give themselves a religious identity that is deemed more important than their national identity. So we off to Biafra, the Oguta man then says Oguta is superior to Onitsha. Ndi Arochukwu claim ancestral superiority over the rest. In the midst of this poor grasp of civics, what will establish the supremacy of the Biafran identity?
The Nigerian nation has failed us as a collective and we have also failed the nation. The agitation for a separate identity is a natural consequence of being hitched to a failed state. That however does not make it a valid solution to a genuine problem. The faulty components of the failed state, if split into 4 parts, would only result in 4 failed states.
Fiscal federalism with a curtailed centre might be a start. However with poor appreciation of the civic governance process, it will soon throw up highly oppressive centres within those federating units.
The problem is far more complex than the separatist solutions being touted. I do not claim omniscience on what the solution should be, but by jove I recognise a bad proposal when I see one.